Sarah Burt, Attorney, International Program: “This particular case may be over but the plaintiffs’ advocacy in protecting their homes, culture, and way of life is not. They are continuing to work in Japan to protect their communities from the militarization that’s taking place in Okinawa and that work will continue.”
What’s at Stake
Dugongs are ancient cultural icons for the Okinawan people. They are listed as an object of national cultural significance under Japan’s Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties.
In 1997, it was estimated that there may have been as few as 50 Okinawa dugongs left in the world; more recent surveys have only been able to conclude that at least three dugongs remain in Okinawa.
A U.S. base expansion in Okinawa, Japan, would pave over some of the last remaining habitat for critically endangered Okinawa dugongs, ancient cultural icons for the Okinawan people and marine mammals related to manatees. The dugong is listed as an object of national cultural significance under Japan’s Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties, the equivalent of the U.S. National Historic Protection Act.
A hearing in this historic lawsuit brought by American and Japanese conservation groups under a provision of the National Historic Preservation Act that requires the United States to avoid or mitigate any harm to places or things of cultural significance to another country was held in December 2014.
The Japanese Ministry of the Environment has listed dugongs as “critically endangered,” and the animals are also on the U.S. endangered species list. In 1997, it was estimated that there may have been as few as 50 Okinawa dugongs left in the world; more recent surveys have only been able to conclude that at least three dugongs remain in Okinawa.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, is the latest in a long-running controversy over the expansion of a U.S. Marine air base at Okinawa’s Henoko Bay. Preliminary construction on the base began in 2014.
Earthjustice, on behalf of the Center for Biological Diversity, Turtle Island Restoration Network, Japan Environmental Lawyers Federation, Save The Dugong Foundation, Anna Shimabukuro, Takuma Higashionna, and Yoshikazu Makishi, are arguing that the Court should review the U.S. Department of Defense’s flawed efforts to examine the harm the expansion will cause for the Okinawa dugong, and stop the Department of Defense from allowing construction of the new airstrip until it has made meaningful attempts to avoid or mitigate that harm.
Sarah Burt, Attorney, International Program: “For the plaintiffs, for the local communities in Okinawa, the fight goes on. They’ve been organizing and campaigning and trying to make their voices heard to protest against the increasing militarization of their communities for a long time now. This lawsuit is just one tool. The law is a powerful tool, but they will continue organizing and fighting for their way of life.”
Sarah Burt, Attorney, Earthjustice: "Judge Chen is taking seriously his obligation to review what the Department of Defense has done. I'm hopeful that we have been able to convince him that the very purpose of the statute is informed decision-making in partnership with local communities. I was able to make the case for the people of Okinawa and the dugong."
Sarah Burt, Attorney, International Program: “It’s mandated that the government talk to the communities themselves. It’s like the government building a base on sacred Hawaiian and saying ‘we’re not going talk to the native communities but we’ll talk to an anthropologist from the University of Hawaii.’”